Film, Went There

WENT THERE: Eva Hesse (2016) dir. Marcie Begleiter @MFA

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Chronicling the sadly short life of painter-turned-sculptor Eva Hesse, Marcie Begleiter’s film of the same name was accompanied by a Q&A session with the filmmaker after September 8th’s screening at the MFA.  This intimate documentary, which integrates various personal materials of Hesse’s life with interviews and captivating animation sequences, offers a portrait of the artist as a young woman saddled by many pressures – emotional, creative, and ultimately, cranial, resulting in her death at the unrelenting hands of brain cancer.

But Hesse had a pair of unrelenting hands herself, and was incredibly prolific until the very end of her life, producing works that have continued to inspire younger generations of artists.  Some of the clearest and most evocative images of the film are the ones that simply show Hesse’s pieces, up-close or from a distance, allowing us to sit with them and take in their curvature.  Her work manages to eschew strict labels, instead blending 20th century styles of abstract expressionism (which her painting work followed most closely), surrealism, and minimalism.

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Eva’s work ethic was fervent and impassioned.  One could describe her, convincingly, as crazed, but they’d also have to acknowledge that she had to be that way. During this time, very little recognition was granted to female artists.  And in any case, she led her career in as controlled a manner as possible, preserving a graceful (or, as one of her friends puts it, “soulful”) attitude, considering what she was up against.  Not only did Hesse achieve the notoriety to have solo exhibitions here and abroad, but she was also fully a part of the art world of New York City in the 1960s.

Many of her friends and colleagues are featured in the film; their interviews serve as a fundamental structuring device that allows us to gather a sense of her warmth and personhood, as well as her artistic persona. Among these figures are writers Lucy Lippard and Gioia Timpanelli and such artists as Nancy Holt, Dan Graham, and Carl Andre (whose friend and secondary school roommate was the widely influential experimental filmmaker Hollis Frampton, reminding us that the art of cinema is never very far away from other forms of tangible art).  Also featured is archival interview footage of Sol LeWitt, a particularly close friend and confidant of Hesse’s.

Through all of these recollections, as well as from photos, archival footage, and extensive use of material directly from her eloquently written journals (read by Selma Blair), we come to understand Hesse’s aura; an intensely likable, inspiring one, which refused to give up even when a brain tumor caused frequent, intense pain.  Artists who produce as much work as she did, and in such a short span of time, might tend towards reclusiveness.  But Hesse was explosive and charming, keeping many friends close, and knowing how to work effectively with them if she had the right idea.

The memories of those friends remain quite vivid; it seems the shock of her passing hasn’t fully subsided through the years.  Her untimely death, which came during a period of enormous success and recognition, is perhaps, paradoxically, the most fitting end for her, given the film’s particular emphasis on her personal and artistic philosophy: the complete absurdity and irrationality of people, of things, of life itself.  This notion totally captivated her imagination and propelled her in unexpected directions; it was the central creative impetus behind her art’s energy and excitement.

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It was also the volatility of her past that made for such dynamic and intimately textured creations. Her nuclear family escaped Germany just before the start of the Second World War, but many of her relatives were lost to the concentration camps.  The stress of this loss – perhaps a manifestation of survivors’ guilt – led her mother to commit suicide when Hesse was just ten years old.  She remained close with her father for many years before he died unexpectedly while traveling in Europe.  These events were devastating for Hesse, but she turned that pain into something with which she could make her loved ones proud, even if they couldn’t see it themselves.

Hesse was uniquely acquainted with the ephemerality of life – from her mother’s suicide and the death of other relatives in the Holocaust, to her failed marriage with artist Tom Doyle, to the very composition of her art: much of it was plastic- or latex-based, and she knew that it would degrade over time. But unlike many of us, her familiarity with ephemerality didn’t make her fearful, and this is perhaps one of the most inspiring things about her.  Indeed, we are left to ponder the impermanence of things, while contemplating her lasting impact, upon hearing the film’s closing line, from Hesse’s journal: “Art doesn’t last.  Life doesn’t last.  It doesn’t matter.”

Following the screening, director Marcie Begleiter offered her own candid recollection of the filmmaking and production process.  In her words, the materiality, beauty, and intelligence of Hesse’s work were so profound, along with her powerful presence, that it needed to be documented accordingly.  A down-to-earth presence herself, Begleiter was eager to discuss themes that weren’t explored in the film.

In my eyes, this brief discussion was particularly interesting because it showed how intensely research-driven filmmaking can be, especially when so much time has passed since the subject could have provided their own voice, or answered any questions. Begleiter also indicated that this film, far from intending to make absolute interpretations, instead hints at the idea that Hesse’s work has yet to be fully digested by the artistic community and society at large.  In this, Hesse continues to arouse the unexpected, imploring us to ask the most vital questions about art, life, and their curious intersection.

Eva Hesse
2016
dir. Marcie Begleiter
105 min.

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